Dejan Lovren was probably right in saying that if Luka Modric played for Spain or Germany he might not have won a Ballon d’Or by now — nobody other than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo has for 10 years — but he might well have been in the running.
He is this year, albeit for FIFA’s equivalent prize, the Best Men’s Player, and it validates Lovren’s theory that his first nomination comes after Croatia did at the World Cup what Spain or Germany had done at four of the last five major tournaments. They reached the final.
“Because we are a smaller country, he gets less attention than he deserves,” Lovren said.
Modric was not the only one to excel for Croatia in Russia but he was their inspiration.
His bending shot that nestled in the corner marked the second of a three-goal thrashing of Argentina. His celebration shared with the fans, all floppy hair and clenched fists, became an enduring image of the tournament.
Success internationally has been as rare for Modric as it has been free-flowing for his club. One league title and four in the Champions League for Real Madrid hardly points to a player undersold by his achievements.
But there was something in what Sergio Ramos said on Saturday. “Maybe there are players with more marketing, with a bigger name,” Ramos said. “But Modric deserves that award.”
It was taken by many as a shot at Ronaldo, who departed for Juventus in July and, along with Mohamed Salah, completes the three-man list.
Perhaps, but Ramos may also have been highlighting what fans at the Santiago Bernabeu witness every week. Modric is not a headline-maker like Gareth Bale, Isco or Ronaldo but he is often the most influential on the way the team plays.
When Ronaldo’s departure was confirmed, Ramos wrote in a farewell message:
“Your goals, your numbers and everything we’ve won together speak for themselves.”
– Unheralded hero –
Modric’s numbers, the goal-related ones at least, say very little. He has never scored more than three goals in a single league season for Madrid and has only twice reached six assists. In six seasons in Spain, he has finished with only one league goal to his name four times.
But there are others that offer a glimpse into his work as a playmaker and enforcer.
He posted the most attempted passes (484), most touches (624) and most recoveries (56) of any player at the World Cup. Last season, he was the only Madrid player to combine exceeding 50 shots (55) with more than 50 successful dribbles (73) and more than 200 recoveries (254).
In the World Cup final, he played 72 passes, more than twice as many as any French player. The closest was Paul Pogba with 35.
It was France and Pogba hoisting the trophy though, their victory a triumph not so much for craft but dynamism, speed and physicality.
Where possession was once king, the game now looks to quick transitions and counter-attack. Even Luis Enrique has set about making Spain’s passing identity more “nuanced”.
Modric may not see the end of this trend — he turned 33 on Sunday — but neither has his star been dimmed by it.
When he joined Tottenham from Dinamo Zagreb, he had been heavily scouted by Arsenal but was overlooked, considered too slight to be a Premier League midfielder.
He has put his ability to hold off and wriggle through heftier opponents down to a combination of a low centre of gravity and an iron-will, honed by a loan spell in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a teenager.
When Croatia face Spain in Elche on Tuesday, they will meet a side still plugging the gap left by their own pass-master in the retired Andres Iniesta.
“It’s a great challenge to play against Luka in the Spanish league and it’s even better to play with him for our country,” Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic said.
“Hopefully we will get to enjoy him a little bit more.” They should savour it while it lasts.